DOHA (Reuters) – The latest round of peace talks between the United States and the Taliban will begin in Doha this week and include Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Qatar said on Sunday, despite earlier reports suggesting his absence.
The talks are expected to centre around a ceasefire to end America’s longest war and the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, and are expected begin on Feb. 25, according to diplomatic sources.
U.S. officials have been keen to negotiate with Baradar, hoping the Taliban’s co-founder and military veteran would add momentum and have the clout to discuss tough issues surrounding the end of the 17-year war.
Baradar was released from a Pakistani jail in October and his appointment was widely seen as marking a new push by the Taliban to emerge from the political and diplomatic shadows.
The talks will be led on the U.S. side by United States Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, the foreign ministry statement said.
U.S. officials said that last month’s talks in Doha had seen the most significant progress to date but that major sticking points remained over the timing of a ceasefire.
The Taliban have snubbed recent Afghan government attempts to participate, as well as an offer by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to open a Taliban office in Afghanistan, with the group pushing instead for international recognition of its Doha office.
Some 14,000 U.S. troops are based in Afghanistan as part of a U.S.-led NATO mission to train, assist and advise Afghan forces. Some U.S. forces also carry out counter-terrorism operations.
The push for peace comes as the Taliban, ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2001, have staged near daily attacks and are in control of or contesting districts across nearly half the country.
The foreign presence in Afghanistan has been sharply reduced since its peak at more than 130,000 troops including 100,000 Americans in 2010. More than 2,300 Americans have died in Afghanistan and more than 1,100 troops from more than two dozen allied countries, including more than 450 British soldiers.
The United Nations, which has tallied civilian deaths since 2009, had counted nearly 30,000 by 2017. Tens of thousands of members of the Afghan security forces and an unknown number of insurgents have also died.
(Reporting by Eric Knecht; Editing by Peter Graff)